This article was co-written by the Forest Scout editorialists Grace Scheidler and Grace Bentley.
Alright, so the truth is that Hamilton is a once-in-a-generation kind of musical. It’s more than an exceptional soundtrack, an inventive script, or a talented cast featuring a surprise powerhouse tenor. It’s an unparalleled trifecta of history and culture and the human experience, written and composed by (not to mention starring) one unbelievably talented individual by the name of Lin Manuel Miranda. Because of this, it’s easy to see why Hamilton has held the world in rapt attention for the past year and a half, spellbound by the diverse cast of historical figures reborn against a backdrop of rap battles and revolutions. While many of you reading this may still be in the throes of your obsession, and might deny ever getting sick of the musical, the day will come when the sound of Lin’s voice will grate against your ears, and the thought of listening to “The Schuyler Sisters” one more time makes your head ache. While you very well may never get over your love of Hamilton, you might get sick of it. And though there’s nothing out there that’s quite able to top Hamilton, here’s a few musicals to get obsessed with in the meantime.
Dear Evan Hansen
Track Count: 14
Few plots are as tragic as the one featured in this particular musical. Dear Evan Hansen revolves around our teenaged protagonist, Evan Hansen. Plagued by severe social anxiety, he struggles to find his way in his family and in school, and his therapist recommends he write letters to himself as a means of coping with his anxiety–hence, the title of the musical. When one of his therapy letters ends up in the pocket of a classmate (Connor Murphy) when he’s found after committing suicide, people take it as the classmate’s suicide note and assume Evan and Connor were best friends that no one knew about. In reality, Evan and Connor hadn’t spoken more than a few words to each other in passing, but Evan, tragically desperate for human connection and acceptance, takes the opportunity to insert himself into the Murphy family. While following the rise (and inevitable fall) of Evan’s plan, the musical wrestles with unrequited love, a sister refusing to grieve for her somewhat abusive brother, and two mothers watching their respective families fall apart and not knowing how to fix it. The underlying theme of acceptance, of finding your place in the world, is one that hits very close to home as well. While this short explanation offers the bare bones of the story, a plot synopsis read-through on Wikipedia is recommended before listening to truly understand the meaning behind each song. The emotion with each and every song (there’s only 14) is palpable, raw, and utterly gut-wrenching at times. Ben Platt, the lead–who you may recognize as the dorky magician roommate from Pitch Perfect–offers a killer combo in stellar vocals and passionate delivery. A few standout songs (though they’re all incredible) have got to be “Waving through a Window”, in which Evan’s loneliness tugs right at the heartstrings; “If I Could Tell Her”, where Evan details all of the reasons he’s in love with Connor’s sister, Zoe; “You Will Be Found”, a song that is both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time; and finally, “Words Fail”, in which Evan’s devastating self-deprecation never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Well, if all of this hasn’t convinced you to give Dear Evan Hansen a listen, I don’t know what will.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Track count: 27
Not many musicals can claim to be on the same level of weird Hamilton does–let’s be real, from an objective point of view, nothing sounds stranger for a plot of a smash musical than a hip-hop/R&B/classic Broadway show following the rise and fall of the forgotten founding father Alexander Hamilton. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, however, gets pretty darn closer to being as eccentric, if not even more. This 2012 musical, written and composed by David Malloy, is a splendidly eclectic, self-described electronic-pop-opera following a small section–Volume 2, Part 5–of Leo Tolstoy’s 1,225 page masterpiece War and Peace. The characters, as numerous and complex in the musical as they are in the novel, are skillfully and simply introduced in the rousing, accordion-set “Prologue” that explains the premise of the story to come. Natasha is young, and she loves her absentee fiance, Prince Andrey, who is off fighting in the Napoleonic War, with all her heart. Pierre–dear, bewildered, unhappily married, and an alcoholic among other things–is Andrey’s friend, suffering a bit of an existential crisis as he sits at home while the war wages on. Andrey is gone, and Natasha is young; enter the dashing Anatole, a 19th century playboy, with whom Natasha quickly becomes infatuated. Knowing the dire consequences of such “love”, Pierre and Natasha’s friends scramble to end the affair that is destined to end in heartbreak and scandal. Without delving too much into the spoilers of the scandal and conflict that ensues, it is sufficient to say that the musical is one thrill of ride. At times stirring and beautiful, as in Natasha’s aria “No One Else” (stunningly performed in the album recording by the breathtaking Phillipa Soo of Hamilton) and the heartrending masterpiece of a final song, “The Great Comet of 1812”; other times electrifying and modern, as in the beat-driven, electronic “The Duel” and “Letters”. The musical ranges from modern to classical Broadway to Russian folk, from touching to exhilarating. Malloy frequently uses direct lines, even paragraphs, from War and Peace as 3rd person narrations sung by the characters to give a refreshing insight to their minds (the last 3 songs are all essentially taken straight from the book in verbatim). The Great Comet’s individual parts–the modern take on the Russian classic, the wonderfully odd mix of music genres, the superb musical performances–are great on their own, but it is the sum of its whole that makes it truly revolutionary.
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Track count: 23
If there was one word to use to describe the 2013 musical Hunchback of Notre Dame, it would be this: haunting. The first song, “Olim”, opens with a bell. A slow, powerful chime of a church bell, followed by another, and then another. Very softly, the cast begins chanting an echoing melody in Latin, in lieu of an classical Medieval choir, followed by higher, sweeter bells. But then the deeper bells return, an organ and trumpet thunder in, triumphant and grandiose, and the chanting picks up in an epic crescendo that sends shivers down the spine. Just like that, “Olim” flawlessly transitions into “The Bells of Notre Dame”, setting the stage for the exquisitely composed, ethereal piece of work that is 2013 Broadway musical Hunchback of Notre Dame. This 2013 musical, composed by Alan Menken, is an adaption of the 1997 Disney movie Hunchback of Notre Dame, which in turn is an adaption of Victor Hugo’s (yes, the same Victor Hugo who also wrote the novel-later-turned-Broadway-classic Les Miserables) Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831. The plot is a tear jerking one; the tale centers on the tragic life of Quasimodo, a half-deaf hunchback who works the bells of the French cathedral Notre Dame. Quasimodo, essentially held prisoner by his guardian, the decidedly-unholy “holy” Archdeacon Claude Frollo, longs to live in the world that he has only ever seen from the bell towers of the Notre Dame. When he escapes one day and meets the beautiful dancer Esmeralda, Quasimodo is finally exposed to all that life has to offer–danger, humiliation, sacrifice, grief, and, ultimately, love. Michael Arden shines as Quasimodo, perfectly encapsulating his both childlike innocence and longing for acceptance and love. His renditions of “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light” soar to unimaginable heights, bursting with emotion and wonder; his heartbreaking last few lines in the 13-minute long “Finale” never fail to bring tears to my eyes. Patrick Page is chilling as Frollo and stuns in what is probably the best villain song of all time, “Hellfire”; Ciara Renee is, well, a Disney princess, beautiful and passionate in “God Help the Outcasts” and the new song “Someday”. Hunchback is a dark musical–it grapples with themes of lust, religious persecution, sin, and psychological abuse–but that and the simply astounding music make it one of my absolute favorites.
The Last Five Years
Track count: 14
The most frustrating thing about musical soundtracks–to me, at least–is when you fall in love with a musical only to find out it’s only playing in some indie theater in downtown NYC. With my only disposable income coming from odd babysitting jobs here and there, a plane ticket to New York for a show is not exactly practical–which brings me to my point. This particular musical has an amazing film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, with a soundtrack that’s definitely on-par with other Broadway hits. No plot synopsis is necessary, then, to grasp the meaning behind the songs, which streamlines the path to musical obsession. The concept behind this musical is innovative, if confusing at times. It’s centered around a couple and the timeline of their relationship over the last five years–hence the title. Cathy’s perspective begins at the end of the their relationship, and works backwards throughout the rest of the movie/soundtrack/musical, ultimately ending the day after their first date. Jamie, on the other hand, starts at the beginning of their relationship and ends with him skipping town with his book publisher. Anna Kendrick does a wonderful job pouring emotion and giving gravity to the songs she sings, particularly with the opening song, “Still Hurting”, and later on, with the heartbreaking “See I’m Smiling.” Throughout the musical it’s a constant tug-of-war between Jamie and Cathy, and which side the audience is on. However, having watched the movie and listened to the soundtrack a fair amount of times, I’ve gotta give it to Anna Kendrick’s character. There’s something about the way she opens the musical in such anguish, and the way her sadness punctuates even the happier times of their relationship, like in “A Summer in Ohio” and “A Part of That”. If you’ve got time this weekend, I highly recommend giving the movie a watch and the soundtrack a listen. You won’t regret it.
OTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MUSICALS:
In the Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda / 2008 / 27 tracks
Beauty and the Beast
Alan Menken / 1994 / 23 tracks
The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone / 2011 / 16 tracks